Heart disease is a great danger for women—a fact that the American Heart Association has worked hard to make known since 2004.

For 15 years, women have been seeing red in February. They've been wearing red too, as part of a national social initiative aimed at empowering women to take their health care to heart.

National Wear Red Day was born in 2003 through a collaboration of the American Heart Association and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Its purpose was to raise awareness of an alarming but under-recognized fact—that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

The heart association created the Go Red for Women campaign in 2004 to dispel myths and raise awareness about the risk of heart disease in women—a risk many women knew nothing about. The annual highlight of the campaign is the Go Red for Women luncheon, held in February in cities throughout the country.

In Columbus, this year's Go Red luncheon is being held Feb. 22 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Attendance at the first luncheon was fewer than 50; this year's event is expected to draw close to 1,000 people, says Brenda Houston, executive director for the American Heart Association—Central Ohio.

“It's one of the premier events in our community,” Houston says. “It's a celebration of the year-round movement to empower and educate women.” Attendees include corporate CEOS, stay-at-home moms, physicians and women who share their personal experiences with cardiovascular disease.

In Houston's case, she lost her mother to a massive heart attack when she was 21. “I didn't know about the American Heart Association. I didn't know about heart disease.''

The local Go Red campaign's goal this year is to raise $2 million to advance the efforts.

Go Red has attracted major corporate sponsors, both nationally and locally. Most sign on to make a tangible impact on women's health.

“We know that 80 percent of cardiovascular disease can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes,” Houston says. “Our corporate sponsors recognized this. Not only are they invested in employee health and wellness, but they're passionate about engaging the community.”

National sponsor Macy's was approached by the AHA in 2003, “when Go Red was just a glimmer of an idea,” says Holly Thomas, group vice president. “With a customer and employee population base that is more than 70 percent female, we really related to the importance of this effort and signed on immediately.”

For Big Lots! Chief Operating Officer Lisa Bachmann, the cause is personal as well. Her father died of a massive heart attack at age 62, and her mother experienced a heart attack during a treadmill stress test.

“Thankfully, today, she's a healthy 87-year-old playing golf three times a week,” Bachmann says, but the path there wasn't always smooth.

Her mother was misdiagnosed with, among other things, arthritis and acid reflux and at one point was referred to a chiropractor for back pain. “I remember saying, ‘Mom, you really have to be your own advocate. I saw firsthand that (heart disease and heart attack) symptoms can be very different in women than they are in men.”

Cardinal Health CEO Mike Kaufmann was surprised when he learned about the gender disparities among women and men in cardiovascular disease. He and his wife, Linda, are chairs of this year's local Go Red for Women Luncheon.

When he learned that women are less likely to survive their first attack because of missed symptoms, “that was powerful for Linda and me, so we kept digging into the topic.” What he found out, he says, is that women are “misrepresented in research, misdiagnosed by medical professionals and misunderstood when it comes to the impact of heart disease and strokes.”

Kaufmann is executive sponsor of the Cardinal Health employee resource group focused on women and gender partnership. He hopes the Go Red Luncheon and other activities bring awareness about gender equity in health and in the workplace.

Dr. Laxmi Mehta, director of the Women's Cardiovascular Health Program at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says the medical profession is continuing to learn about the unique aspects of heart disease among women. For example, in some women, heart attacks are not caused by blockages but by spasms or the spontaneous tearing of a coronary artery wall.

She says women traditionally have been under-represented in clinical research, which is why “we encourage women to sign up and show up for clinical trials.”

The signs of a heart attack in women, such as jaw pain, heartburn or fatigue, often go unrecognized or are mistaken for something else, Mehta adds. “Women think, ‘It's not me. This can't be happening to me.' Women have so many competing duties, and that can make it difficult for them to make their own healthcare a priority.”

In the last decade, deaths due to heart disease and stroke have dramatically decreased among women. “We have turned the culture around. We have made great strides, but there is more to be done,” says Mehta, a board member of the American Heart Association Great Rivers Affiliate.

“Women need to understand that, regardless of their age, they can be at risk.”

Especially important, she says, is for women to make the necessary lifestyle changes and to “know their numbers,” such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “Mental health also plays a role, such as in stress-induced cardiomyopathy.”

Since its inception, more than 900,000 women have joined the Go Red for Women initiative. Of women who have joined, 89 percent have made at least one positive lifestyle change, such as diet, exercise, losing weight or seeing a physician, Houston says.

Bachmann says when considering corporate sponsorship, the Big Lots! Foundation relies on its four pillars: help, hunger, housing and education. The annual luncheon, she says, “is very impactful and has included women in their 20s and 30s sharing their personal stories. Corporate sponsorship can help open the doors to all women.”

Kaufmann says Cardinal has been involved with Go Red because of its obvious impact, both nationally and locally. “The research dollars that flow back into our community, and the programs that happen as a result of that funding make our community healthier.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.